Gosse's Gossip - A VOLUME OF OLD PLAYS

A VOLUME OF OLD PLAYS

THE ROMAN EMPRESS, by William Joyner, printed in 1671
THE USURPER, by the Hon. Edward Howard, printed in 1668
CARNIVAL, a comedy, by Major Thomas Porter, printed in 1664
THE AMAZON QUEEN, byJoseph Weston , printed in 1667
THE HUMOROUS LOVERS, by the Duke of Newcastle, printed in 1677
SERTORIUS, by John Bancroft ,printed in 1679
THE FORTUNE HUNTERS, by James Carlile, printed in 1689
MR. ANTHONY, by the Right Honourable the Earl of Orrery, printed in 1690

In his Ballad of the Book-Hunter, Andrew Lang describes how, in breeches baggy at the knees, the bibliophile hunts in all weathers:

No dismal stall escapes his eye;
He turns o'er tomes of low degrees;
There soiled romanticists may lie,
Or Restoration comedies.

            That speaks straight to my heart; for of all my weaknesses the weakest is that weakness of mine for Restoration plays. From 1660 down to 1710 nothing in dramatic form comes amiss, and I have great schemes, like the boards on which people play the game of solitaire, in which space is left for every drama needed to make this portion of my library complete. It is scarcely literature, I confess; it is a sport, a long game which I shall probably be still playing at, with three mouldy old tragedies and one opera yet needed to complete my set, when the Reaper comes to carry me where there is no amassing nor collecting. It would hardly be credited how much pleasure I have drained out of these dramas since I began to collect them judiciously in my still callow youth. I admit only first editions; but that is not so rigorous as it sounds, since at least half of the poor old things never went into a second.

            As long as it is Congreve and Dryden and Otway, of course it is literature, and of a very high order; even Shadwell and Mrs. Behn and Southerne are literature; Settle and Ravenscroft may pass as legitimate literary curiosity. But there are depths below this where there is no excuse but sheer collectaneomania. Plays by people who never got into any schedule of English letters that ever was planned, dramatic nonentities, stage innocents massacred in their cradles, if only they were published in quarto I find room for them. I am not quite so pleased to get these anonymities, I must confess, as I am to get a clean, tall editio princeps of The Orphan or of Love for Love. But I neither reject nor despise them; each of them counts one; each serves to fill a place on my solitaire board, each hurries on that dreadful possible time coming when my collection shall be complete, and I shall have nothing to do but break my collecting rod and bury it fathoms deep.

            A volume has just come in which happens to have nothing in it but those forgotten plays, whose very names are unknown to the historians of literature. First comes The Roman Empress, by William Joyner, printed in 1671. Joyner was an Oxford man, a fellow of Magdalen College. The little that has been recorded about him makes one wish to know more. He became persuaded of the truth of the Catholic faith, and made a voluntary resignation of his Oxford fellowship. He had to do something, and so he wrote this tragedy, which he dedicated to Sir Charles Sedley, the poet, and got acted at the Theatre Royal. The cast contains two good actors' names, Mohun and Kynaston, and it seems that it enjoyed a considerable success. But doubtless the stage was too rough a field for the gentle Oxford scholar. He retired into a sequestered country village, where he lingered on till 1706, when he was nearly ninety. But Joyner was none of the worst of poets. Here is a fragment of The Royal Empress, which is by no means despicably versed:

O thou bright, glorious morning,
Thou Oriental spring-time of the day,
Who with thy mixed vermilion colours paintest
The sky, these hills and plains! thou dost return
In thy accustom'd manner, but with thee
Shall ne'er return my wonted happiness.

            Through his Roman tragedy there runs a pensive vein of sadness, as though the poet were thinking less of his Aurelia and his Valentius than of the lost common-room and the arcades of Magdalen to be no more revisited.

            Our next play is a worse one, but much more pretentious. It is the Usurper, of 1668, the first of four dramas published by the Hon. Edward Howard, one of Dryden's aristocratic brothers-in-law. Edward Howard is memorable for a couplet constantly quoted from his epic poem of The British Princes:

 

A vest as admired Vortiger had on,
Which from a naked Pict his grandsire won.

            Poor Howard has received the laughter of generations for representing Vortiger's grandsire as thus having stripped one who was bare already. But this is the wickedness of some ancient wag, perhaps of Dryden himself, who loved to laugh at his brother-in-law. At all events, the first (and, I suppose, only) edition of The British Princes is before me at this moment, and the second of these lines certainly runs:

Which from this island's foes his grandsire won.

            Thus do the critics, leaping one after another, like so many sheep, follow the same wrong track, in this case for a couple of centuries. The Usurper is a tragedy, in which a Parasite, "a most perfidious villain," plays a mysterious part. He is led off to be hanged at last, much to the reader's satisfaction, who murmurs, in the words of R.L. Stevenson, "There's an end of that."

            But though the Usurper is dull, we reach a lower depth and muddier lees of wit in the Carnival, a comedy by Major Thomas Porter, of 1664. It is odd, however, that the very worst production, if it be more than two hundred years old, is sure to contain some little thing interesting to a modern student. The Carnival has one such peculiarity. Whenever any of the characters is left alone on the stage, he begins to soliloquise in the stanza of Gray's Churchyard Elegy. This is a very quaint innovation, and one which possibly occurred to brave Major Porter in one of the marches and counter-marches of the Civil War.

            But the man who perseveres is always rewarded, and the fourth play in our volume really repays us for pushing on so far. Here is a piece of wild and ghostly poetry that is well worth digging out of the Duke of Newcastle's Humorous Lovers:

At curfew-time, and at the dead of night,
I will appear, thy conscious soul to fright,
Make signs, and beckon thee my ghost to follow
To sadder groves, and churchyards, where we'll hollo
To darker caves and solitary woods,
To fatal whirlpools and consuming floods;
I'll tempt thee to pass by the unlucky ewe,
Blasted with cursèd droppings of mildew;
Under an oak, that ne'er bore leaf, my moans
Shall there be told thee by the mandrake's groans;
The winds shall sighing tell thy cruelty,
And how thy want of love did murder me;
And when the cock shall crow, and day grow near,
Then in a flash of fire I'll disappear.

            But I cannot persuade myself that his Grace of Newcastle wrote those lines himself. Published in 1677, they were as much of a portent as a man in trunk hose and a slashed doublet. The Duke had died a month or two before the play was published; he had grown to be, in extreme old age, the most venerable figure of the Restoration, and it is possible that the Humorous Lovers may have been a relic of his Jacobean youth. He might very well have written it, so old was he, in Shakespeare's lifetime. But the Duke of Newcastle was never a very skilful poet, and it is known that he paid James Shirley to help him with his plays. I feel convinced that if all men had their own, the invocation I have just quoted would fly back into the works of Shirley, and so, no doubt, would the following quaintest bit of conceited fancy. It is part of a fantastical feast which Boldman promises to the Widow of his heart:

The twinkling stars shall to our wish
Make a grand salad in a dish;
Snow for our sugar shall not fail,
Fine candied ice, comfits of hail;
For oranges, gilt clouds will squeeze;
The Milky Way we'll turn to cheese;
Sunbeams we'll catch, shall stand in place
Of hotter ginger, nutmegs, mace;
Sun-setting clouds for roses sweet,
And violet skies strewed for our feet;
The spheres shall for our music play,
While spirits dance the time away
.

            This is extravagant enough, but surely very picturesque. I seem to see the supper-room of some Elizabethan castle after an elaborate royal masque. The Duchess, who has been dancing, richly attired in sky-coloured silk, with gilt wings on her shoulders, is attended to the refreshments by the florid Duke, personating the river Thamesis, with a robe of cloth of silver around him. It seems the sort of thing a poet so habited might be expected to say between a galliard and a coranto.

            At first sight we seem to have reached a really good rhetorical play when we arrive at Bancroft's tragedy of Sertorius, published in 1679, and so it would be if Dryden and Lee had never written. But its seeming excellence is greatly lessened when we recollect that All for Love and Mithridates, two great poems which are almost good plays, appeared in 1678, and inspired our poor imitative Bancroft. Sertorius is written in smooth and well-sustained blank verse, which is, however, nowhere quite good enough to be quoted. I suspect that John Bancroft was a very interesting man. He was a surgeon, and his practice lay particularly in the theatrical and literary world. He acquired, it is said, from his patients "a passion for the Muses," and an inclination to follow in the steps of those whom he cured or killed. The dramatist Ravenscroft wrote an epilogue to Sertorius, in which he says that—

Our Poet to learnèd critics does submit,
But scorns those little vermin of the pit,
Who noise and nonsense vent instead of wit,

 

and no doubt Bancroft had aims more professional than those of the professional playwrights themselves. He wrote three plays, and lived until 1696. One fancies the discreet and fervent poet-surgeon, laden with his secrets and his confidences. Why did he not write memoirs, and tell us what it was that drove Nat Lee mad, and how Otway really died, and what Dryden's habits were? Why did he not purvey magnificent indiscretions whispered under the great periwig of Wycherley, or repeat that splendid story about Etheredge and my Lord Mulgrave? Alas! we would have given a wilderness of Sertoriuses for such a series of memoirs.

            The volume of plays is not exhausted. Here is Weston's Amazon Queen, of 1667, written in pompous rhymed heroics; here is The Fortune Hunters, a comedy of 1689, the only play of that brave fellow, James Carlile, who, being brought up an actor, preferred "to be rather than to personate a hero," and died in gallant fight for William of Orange, at the battle of Aughrim; here is Mr. Anthony, a comedy written by the Right Honourable the Earl of Orrery, and printed in 1690, a piece never republished among the Earl's works, and therefore of some special interest. But I am sure my reader is exhausted, even if the volume is not, and I spare him any further examination of these obscure dramas, lest he should say, as Peter Pindar did of Dr. Johnson, that I

 

Set wheels on wheels in motion—such a clatter!
To force up one poor nipperkin of water;
Bid ocean labour with tremendous roar
To heave a cockle-shell upon the shore.

 

            I will close, therefore, with one suggestion to the special student of comparative literature—namely, that it is sometimes in the minor writings of an age, where the bias of personal genius is not strongly felt, that the general phenomena of the time are most clearly observed. The Amazon Queen is in rhymed verse, because in 1667 this was the fashionable form for dramatic poetry; Sertorius is in regular and somewhat restrained blank verse, because in 1679 the fashion had once more chopped round. What in Dryden or Otway might be the force of originality may be safely taken as the drift of the age in these imitative and floating nonentities.

 

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